Every season of the year asks us to shift our lifestyle habits to match the energy of the Earth. Chinese medicine is all about living with the rhythms of nature. We can follow the seasons and live our lives accordingly for maximum health; we encounter physical and emotional depletion when we go against these natural cycles.
The majority of the animal kingdom hibernates during wintertime. It is a period of restoration, quiet and inactivity in preparation for the giant burst that is spring. What do we humans do instead? We race around frantically looking for “perfect gifts.” We travel, attend tons of holiday parties and ramp-up our workouts to combat holiday weight gain. We stress, we push and then we get sick.
This season’s main goals are to replenish our reserves and conserve our vitality. Winter begins with the solstice on December 21st—the longest night and shortest day of the year. These tips can help you work with the environment to encourage harmony and balance within the body:
1. Eat Warm, Cooked Foods
Just say “no” to salads and other raw foods throughout winter. It’s cold outside and your diet should reflect this to stay in balance with the season. The foods to eat now are ones that naturally grow during this time of year or have been harvested and dried during autumn, such as root vegetables, squashes, winter greens, mushrooms, beans and lentils. Your body wants and needs to stay warm. Cooking methods should reflect this: bake, roast, braise, stew and slow cook to introduce more heat into your meals. Reach for broths and stews, rich meats and more ginger and cinnamon. As always, organic, local and unprocessed products are most nutritious.
Here are some suggestions for ingredients to add to your winter meals: grass-fed beef, black beans, black mushrooms, black sesame seeds and oil, black soybeans, bone marrow, cabbages, celery, chard, chestnuts, cranberries, dark leafy greens, duck, eggs, ginger, goose, kale, kidney beans, kohlrabi, lamb, leeks, lotus seed, miso, mulberry, mutton, ocean perch, parsley, pine nuts, rutabaga, seaweed, shrimp/prawns, soy sauce, string beans, turnips, walnuts and wood ear mushrooms.
2. Get Extra Sleep
This is such an active, social season that we tend to get less sleep during a time when we need it the most. The Tao suggests that we go to bed with the moon and rise with the sun. While it is unrealistic for us to crawl into bed at 5pm, I’m sure many of us would like to! Whenever possible, try to add an extra hour to your sleep routine. Cut out the extra hour of TV or Internet to add rest into your schedule.
We really notice how much sleep we actually need when we finally get a good night’s rest. Getting up earlier also allows us the chance to absorb more of the sun’s warming energy and vitamin D!
3. Wash Your Hands
This is the number one way to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. Wash your hands as soon as you get home, get to work, basically before and after you touch anything in a public space. Antibacterial hand soaps and sanitizers reduce your skin’s ability to kill germs on its own. They effectively apply a layer of sticky gel on top of the germs on your hands. They are a last resort if you are unable to simply wash your hands, but I do advise against them.
4. Support Your Adrenal System
The stress from the post-holiday season can be exhausting. Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system or our “fight or flight” response. These days, this reaction is elicited by an overwhelming line at Whole Foods rather than the need to outrun a tiger. Our body’s adrenal system (the kidneys) still interprets our stress in the same way, though, no matter what the cause. Unfortunately, adrenal overload leads to adrenal exhaustion and a very burned-out person. You can combat this by cutting down as much as possible on coffee, sugar and other stimulants.
5. Just Breathe
This is high-stress season. We are wrapping up work projects before vacation, navigating challenging relationships with family members, logging multiple hours in airports, worrying about our finances and rushing around trying to get everything done. Find a method to add peace and calm into your life on a daily basis.
You can begin your day with a two-minute breath practice. Set a timer and begin to count your inhales and exhales. The goal is to have your out-breath be slightly longer than your in-breath. This signals to the body that it’s safe and can relax. This can clear your mind for the day, and you can employ it throughout the day, if tension builds. Do it on the train or at your desk. Stress and frustration can damage your immune system, allowing pathogens in. Schedule relaxation into your day.
6. Slow Down
This is not the season to strive and push through. Each season in Chinese medicine corresponds to a different organ system. Winter is the time of the kidneys and the bladder. The qualities of these organ systems are also the qualities of winter rest, reflection, conservation and storage.
The kidneys are considered the source of all the energy in the body, including our “reserve.” The amount of reserve energy with which we come into this world could be compared to the strength of our genetic code. It has a strong effect on our physical and mental development, as well as our aging processes. We should naturally reduce our activity levels to conserve our energy at this time, so as not to deplete our reserves.